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Coast Guard mission in Arctic morphs in response to needs of coastal Alaskans

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
U.S. Coast Guard photo

Coast Guard crews made way for home last week after wrapping up their 2012 season in the Arctic.

Nov. 1 marked the end of Arctic Shield 2012, the fourth year of the Coast Guard’s northernmost program, which focuses on operations, outreach and evaluation of Coast Guard capabilities within the Arctic Circle.

It began as a crossroads into a safer, more efficient Coast Guard presence in the Arctic. As the agency continued to access local knowledge to streamline their missions and needs, they were able to identify and provide services for various humanitarian needs among coastal communities.

They have offered health care and veterinary services, along with emergency support, as a way to better serve the region.

In an expansion of their past presence, the Arctic crew this year included two Kodiak-based MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and the air, ground and communication crew that supported them.

“For the first time, we had Coast Guard crews standing the watch and ready to support search and rescue, environmental protection and law enforcement operations in the Arctic,” said Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo, commander, Coast Guard 17th District. “Our Arctic Shield crews were directly responsible for saving or assisting 10 people and supporting partner agencies in conducting numerous operational missions.”

Arctic potential

As far as assessing and improving their capabilities in the Arctic region, corpsmen conducted a field training exercise with U.S. Northern Command, Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving and other agencies to train in deploying oil skimmers in Arctic waters.

They used three different oil skimming systems in these exercises — the Coast Guard’s Spilled Oil Recovery System (carried on board all seagoing buoy tenders), a Navy fast-sweep boom system, and a pocket skimmer intended for use in ice-covered waters.

Other operations included the testing of an amphibious craft and an assessment of vessel traffic. That study aims to lay groundwork for future management of ship routing and vessel transit between the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Their marine infrastructure for a summer in the Arctic included the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf, offering a command and control center for operations in a region lacking a permanent Coast Guard station.

That vessel was joined by several others through the summer, including a 378-foot high endurance cutter, a 283-foot medium endurance cutter and two light-ice capable 225-foot sea going buoy tenders.

These ships allowed the Coast Guard to operate offshore, patrol international borders, support mariner safety and aid in search and rescue efforts.

As far as assessing and improving their capabilities in the Arctic region, corpsmen conducted a field training exercise with U.S. Northern Command, Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving and other agencies to train in deploying oil skimmers in Arctic waters.

They used three different oil skimming systems in these exercises — the Coast Guard’s Spilled Oil Recovery System (carried on board all seagoing buoy tenders), a Navy fast-sweep boom system, and a pocket skimmer intended for use in ice-covered waters.

Other operations included the testing of an amphibious craft and an assessment of vessel traffic. That study aims to lay groundwork for future management of ship routing and vessel transit between the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Community outreach

Humanitarian efforts began back in February, an endeavor that brought corpsmen into 33 Arctic villages and 27 schools.

Arctic Shield water and ice safety training, awareness of fishing vessel safety regulations, as well as medical, dental and veterinary services.

For instance, the Kids Don’t Float program provides loaner boards of life jackets near common water access areas. It also sends corpsmen into schools to teach kids water safety.

An ice rescue team from District 9 — the Great Lakes area — traveled to Alaska to provide workshops in Barrow and Nome focusing on how to rescue yourself and others from dangerous situations on the ice.

In addition, 24 medical professionals — including doctors, dentists and veterinarians — visited villages in both the North Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs to provide health care.

“Our outreach teams left a lasting, positive image of the Coast Guard that directly impacted more than 5,000 people,” said Ostebo. “Their commitment to providing basic care and safety education will open the door for future community engagement and operations throughout the Arctic region.”

Efforts in the Arctic are somewhat enhanced because communities are geographically isolated, Lieutenant Scott Guesno told the Sounder this spring. Arctic Shield gives village members access to a health care professional without having to travel to a hub city like Barrow or Kotzebue.

“The Coast Guard continues its long history of both learning and sharing knowledge and experience,” Guesno said. “(This is) a neighborly, humanitarian aid that we provide.”

“By us getting up there we’re really getting the vital medical and dental needs met,” Guesno said.

Kimlea Medlin is the Dental Director for Simmonds Memorial Hospital in Barrow.

Her department coordinated with Guesno to send several dentists and dental assistants — trained corpsmen — to Wainwright for 15 days of dental care. In that time the team was able to see 180 patients — about a third of the village.

She said the Coast Guard’s contribution in the region helps her department to chip away the health care goals for their North Slope communities.

And the lifting of the financial burden can’t be missed, she said.

“Not a single one of those (180) patients was billed,” Medlin said. “It was an entirely humanitarian outreach. When we added up kind of the total of the treatment they provided, it would have been about $75,000.”

Another aspect of this public health outreach is aimed at household critters.

“One of our big pushes was also our veterinary outreach,” Guesno said. “We were able to go to six different villages in the North Slope Region.”

This year they significantly increased the number of pets they were able to spay, neuter and vaccinate, Guesno said. On the North Slope, they worked with Borough veterinarian Sarah Coburn.

“They sponsored a public health service vet to come out to six of the seven villages with us,” Coburn said. “It’s always good for us to have extra support.”

Rabies vaccinations are a significant public health concern in the Arctic, Coburn said, as well as treatment of dog bites, which go through her department as well.

They also try to prevent and vaccinate for those diseases and parasites that can be transferred between dogs and people, she said.

Guesno pointed out that the Arctic fox is a rabies carrier, and often responsible for populations.

This is the reason they traveled door-to-door in North Slope villages, and were able to vaccinate every dog they could contact, Guesno said.

“Through close partnerships with federal, state, local, and tribal agencies and frequent interaction with regulated industries, the Coast Guard is successfully preparing for operations in the Arctic through Arctic Shield,” said Ostebo. “Our goal is to use lessons learned from this year’s experience to develop a lasting plan for the safe and effective coordination of Coast Guard missions in the future.”

Logistics, personnel management, limited infrastructure, distance and weather challenges are all areas the Coast Guard will continue to address in planning for Arctic Shield 2013.

“In Alaska, we constantly adapt to the environment around us,” said Ostebo. “We’re going to find the right mix of resources to protect mariners, the environment and our nation’s interests in the vast Arctic Region.”

This story originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.